Set in the remote valley of Qadishi, in Northern Lebanon, Abbas Fahdel’s Yara is a limited, if verdant vision of quotidian life. Centered on an orphaned teen girl (Michelle Wehbe) — the title character — who lives with her grandmother, the film observes a tentative, tender courtship: Yara one day crosses paths with Elias (Elias Freifer), a handsome, thoroughly urban stranger. That description might suggest the makings of a classical melodrama, but Fahdel, who previously directed the 2015 documentary Homeland: Iraq Year Zero, has other things in mind. Indeed, although it contains the seeds of a fervent, full-bodied fiction, Yara is more attendant to environment, and to mood, than to story or character. Evoking nonfiction forms, Fahdel’s camera is as likely to focus on a stray cat, or a clothesline set against fog-shrouded mountains, as on the film’s central courtship. For awhile, this approach has its inducements. The manner of Elias’ introduction — with the actor casually sauntering into the far background of a frame — is so underplayed as to be, paradoxically, rather bold. And the lead actors’ pleasing rapport is fully evident in scenes where the pair simply wander about, going into abandoned schools, houses, and churches — locations that carry the weight of history, recalling those who once lived in the region, but are now gone. “They all die or emigrate,” Yara tearfully tells Elias, thinking of her own parents, whom she lost in an accident years back. That feeling of abandonment courses through Yara’s languid 100 minutes, and the threat of departure — Elias expresses a desire to move to Australia — hangs like a shadow.
Yara is more attendant to environment, and to mood, than to story or character. Evoking nonfiction forms, Fahdel’s camera is as likely to focus on a stray cat, or a clothesline set against fog-shrouded mountains, as on the film’s central courtship.
As Yara wears on, though, Fahdel’s presentation — at once canny and naive — begins to frustrate. The director doesn’t want to perturb the relationship between Elias and Yara, so their scenes together are presented detached from all else, coming across like self-contained vignettes. Sundry sequences are filled with affection and flush with natural beauty; often, Fahdel’s camera simply pans from the two lovers to take in Qadishi’s vertiginous landscapes, or cuts between different vantage points, observing the pair against varying backdrops. But while this strategy gives the film an easy, open air, Fahdel too often neglects to integrate the story’s dramatic progression with his interest in evoking a particular sense of place and culture. A fair point of comparison might be Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart, which likewise dealt with a young woman’s struggles with ingrained tradition and a nascent romance, but which more effectively welded its observation of milieu to its dramatic arc. So, even as Yara builds towards its inevitable, conceptually wrenching conclusion — Yara’s choice of whether to leave with Elias or stay in Qadishi — it offers scarcely more than pictorial beauty. And the viewer, like Yara herself, is left wondering if there might be more out there than just this.
You can currently stream Abbas Fahdel’s Yara on Mubi.